Season of Doubt about to begin
The Season of Doubt begins tonight, although there is little doubt that two of the game’s best young quarterbacks will be the stars of the show on Thursday Night Football. The big question is: How long will the show last?
With the Covid-19 pandemic still far from under control and talk of a feared fall spike in cases and a second wave of infections during the annual flu season, one has to wonder if pro football can continue in its present bubble-free environment. The NHL and the NBA have been able to successfully conduct their present playoff runs without major incidents in large part because their players have been locked down in protective bubbles for months, with elimination the only escape.
Major league baseball, on the other hand, has faced a more daunting task with games postponed and then played in seven-inning doubleheaders to complete a season that, in reality, will be far less than 50 percent of a full season. If that were to occur in the NFL it could mean fewer than eight games deciding the 2020 Lombardi Trophy winner because, obviously, there can be no “doubleheaders.".
So the first question is clear: Can the NFL get through a full schedule with its players coming and going every day from their homes to practice facilities to restaurants, bars and who knows where else? While that is the biggest question, it is not the only one.
Every year around this time, the NFL kicks off with 32 teams wondering if this is their year. Well, maybe 30. Because Browns' and Jets’ fans always seem to know that despite how things look on Labor Day long before Super Bowl Sunday their hopes will have been dashed. Actually, you could include Cowboys’ fans, too, except Dallas has become the Jonestown of the NFL. It is where fanatics go to die. Yet their progeny keep believing “this is our year!’’
For the record, 2020 won’t be.
The next question is: Can TB12 succeed without The Hoodie pulling the strings behind the curtain" Or will The Hoodie be exposed as nothing more than the Wizard of Oz (or should that be the Wizard of Odd) without TB12 bailing him out?
For nearly 20 years, Tom Brady served the New England Patriots the way a parish priest does his flock. He absolved others for their sins. He saved the Patriots' bacon season after season, game after game, championship run after championship run. Together, he and Bill Belichick owned the AFC East like a big brother bullying his younger siblings.
They so dominated the AFC that it felt as if they received an annual bye into the championship game. In truth they earned all those appearances, including nine Super Bowl games and six Lombardi Trophies. But at the core of it the question has always been: Is it Belichick or is it Brady?
This season we may finally answer that question.
TB12 is now trying to resurrect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, while Belichick is trying to keep the ball rolling in New England despite losing half of his No. 1-rated scoring defense to free agency, trades and opt outs because of Covid-1 fears (a league high eight Patriots chose to opt out rather than stand by Belichick and take another risk with their health), as well as the greatest quarterback and tight end of their eras.
What it says about Belichick’s approach that not only half his defense and his quarterback left but that Rob Gronkowski also was willing to come out of retirement only if it was NOT to play for Belichick is subject to debate. What won’t be is the answer to the Brady-Belichick debate of the past 20 years: Was New England’s dynasty built by The Hoodie or TB12?
Speaking of TB12, he opens the season Sunday on national television against the NFC South’s best team, Drew Brees’ New Orleans Saints. So, it won’t take long for the new questions to start. Is Brady too old at 43 to keep winning? Can he do for Bruce Arians what he did for Bill Belichick?
Another question asked this week, at least in Arizona, is whether second-year quarterback Kyler Murray become the third straight second year quarterback to become league MVP. First, it was Patrick Mahomes. Then, Lamar Jackson. Can Murray be the third after passing for 3,722 yards and 20 touchdowns last year? Larry Fitzgerald hopes so, but Murray is smart enough to say on his team’s website that “They’ve got to put somebody in the talk. I’ve got to go out and play well, and if I play well, I can put myself in that conversation.’’
Now there’s a young player who understands the reality of the NFL, both the week when the season begins and the day after it’s over. While it is a question worth asking, Murray made clear this week the answer is in his hands. Or at least his throwing hand.
Which brings us to the next question worth asking. Did Jackson and the Baltimore Ravens create a new type of offense last year with its reliance on Jackson’s running skills or will NFL defenses do to it what they have in the past, which is to turn it into a broken gimmick? Is it the future of the NFL or a fad whose time will quickly pass, literally and figuratively?
A year ago, Jackson electrified pro football with his unique blend of running acrobatics and passing acumen. Baltimore broke the 40-year old single-season rushing record by piling up 3,296 rushing yards. Jackson set the single-season rushing record for a quarterback with 1,206 yards while also leading the league with 36 touchdown passes, was third in quarterback efficiency at 113.3 and led his team to a 14-2 record. Yet when the Ravens were eliminated by the old-school, run-dominated Tennessee Titans in their first playoff game the question immediately became: Can you win consistently playing offense the way the Ravens do with Jackson?
No one knows for sure because there is always the lingering fear that it is just a matter of time before some defense snaps Jackson in half. But what if none does? Are Jackson and the Ravens going to revolutionize offensive football the way Sid Luckman and the Bears did with the T-formation 80 years ago? That is an answer the entire league will be searching for this season.
As it seems every fall, there is no end to the questions as a new season opens. Will the Washington Football Team ever have a nickname again? Will it have a new owner by the time investigations into sexual harassment charges conclude?
Can Josh Allen become the next Jim Kelly and finally launch a new era for the Buffalo Bills? Can Ben Roethlisberger’s surgically repair elbow revive the Steelers? Can the 49ers survive the traditional post-Super Bowl losing blues? Can the Raiders win their Las Vegas bet in a year without fans in the stands? Can Aaron Rodgers carry the Packers to the Super Bowl, or has his star begun to fade? Can the draft’s No. 1 pick, quarterback Joe Burrow, survive playing for the Bengals? Will this finally be the year the Browns figure out how to win? Can Cam Newton replace Brady effectively in New England to keep the dynasty dynastic? Lastly, can a man sign a $500-million contract and still stay hungry? That is one only the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes can answer, and it’s not as easy as it may sound.
There are many reasons why we watch the NFL. One is that every season there are new questions to be asked. But never before did we have to ask the biggest one of 2020?
Will there even be a season?
Let’s all hope so.